Spotlight on Grants: Harry Smith Vacation Studentships

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05 / 05 / 2020

Last summer, University of Cambridge BA Natural Sciences student Eliza Walker was awarded a Harry Smith Vacation Studentship by the Society, where she worked under the supervision of Dr Nerea Irigoyen at the Department of Pathology, University of Cambridge.

During her project, Eliza compared the infectivity of an African strain of Zika Virus (ZIKV-Dak84) with an American strain (ZIKV-PE243) in human brain cells.

She started her project by performing a time-course and competition assay before attempting to construct the infectious clone. At this stage, Eliza had to depart slightly from the original plan and was only able to successfully insert one of the six fragments of the ZIKV Dak84 genome into the disease vector.

The results obtained indicated that the African ZIKV strain had a greater level of infectivity compared to the American strain. Eliza found these results intriguing, as infections in humans by the African strain are generally thought to be mild or asymptomatic. By contrast, the American strain can cause severe neurological and gestational problems. This shows that there is still much to learn about the differences in pathologies of these two strains.   

Eliza said that “performing Zika virus infections was really exciting, knowing I was working with a live infectious pathogen. It was also a great opportunity to practice and improve my aseptic technique.

It was great to come into the laboratory every day and be working towards a goal, getting results and problem-solving as issues came up. This was really different to my experience in the teaching laboratories at university and truly gave me a taste of the life of a research scientist. As well as giving me a sense of respect for the resilience and ingenuity of researchers, my studentship has also re-enforced my passion for pathology, and I am excited to pursue further study within this field.”

Dr Irigoyen is a recently appointed Junior Principal Investigator and Eliza was the first student she directly supervised on a daily basis, helping her with the experimental planning, set-up and data interpretation.

Dr Irigoyen said that the studentship “has been a very enriching experience in which I have learnt a lot in managing people and time. I have really enjoyed the task of teaching such an enthusiastic student and transmitting part of my knowledge to her. I presume that this will help me a lot in supervising my latter students, and also in managing the start-up of my own laboratory”.

Dr Irigoyen’s lab hope that the characterisation of the African reverse genetic system will be shortly published in a scientific journal and shared to a wider community of researchers.

Applications for the Harry Smith Vacation Studentship open in December each year.

To find out more about the wide range of grants to support Microbiology Society members, visit the grants area of our website.

Kirti Mistry

Grants and Professional Development Officer